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Workforce guideline lands tea gardens in trouble

“All the workers are coming out to resume their duties as they have come to know that that garden owners would not pay wages without work,” sources said.

The Statesman Desk | Siliguri |

Planters and tea garden owners in north Bengal are now facing problems as they fail to provide jobs to all permanent workers. The garden managements are having a tough time when it comes to selecting the 25 percent workforce that the state government has allowed to be deployed in each garden for plucking and manufacturing tea.

“All the workers are coming out to resume their duties as they have come to know that that garden owners would not pay wages without work,” sources said.

Asked to comment, Chairman of the Terai Indian Planters’ Association (TIPA), Mahendra Bansal, said: “We are happy with the Central government’s revised guidelines for the tea industry and decision to allow deployment of 50 percent workers. On the other hand, we are unhappy, having failed to provide jobs to all permanent workers to complete several pending work, as the gardens were closed for nearly three weeks, since the state government asked to deploy only 25 percent of workers. We fear law and order problem as we fail to provide jobs to all willing workers. Workers are unhappy with us. The state government should allow us to deploy 50 percent workers.”

According to him, they do not have funds to pay the remaining workers, who are not given work.

Mr Bansal, who owns three gardens in the region, added, “We are maintaining better Covid-19 protocol in plantations, as compared to alleged lockdown violations in the markets of Siliguri, but a section of the local people has been filing complaints with the administration by sending a few mobile photos against us.”

Jalpaiguri District Magistrate Abhishek Tiwary today issued an order, asking planters and small growers to maintain proper social distancing. Spokesperson for the BJPbacked Bharatiya Tea Workers Union (BTWU), Rajeev Sharma, on the other hand, blamed the state government for allowing the managements to continue operations and raised questions on whether the state government will take responsibility for an outbreak of coronavirus in tea gardens.

“We had made our stand clear that the tea gardens will be closed and workers will be getting their full wages without work during the lockdown,” Mr Sharma said, adding, “With the state government’s order, the tea garden management has engaged 100 percent workers by violating the Covid-19 norms.”

He also alleged that the police have “politically forced” chairman of the BTWU, John Barla, the MP from Alipurduar, to remain in his home.

“Police are not allowing me to distribute food among tea workers, who have not yet got food grains. We have asked locals to ready a list of such people and submit it to the police for distribution of food items,” Mr Barla said, adding, that he would also file a complaint with authorities against the state police.

Notably, Darjeeling MP Raju Bista, Mr Barla and even fugitive Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha leader Bimal Gurung have requested the central government to keep tea plantations under lockdown, but tea garden owners are happy with the Centre’s revised guidelines issued today, allowing operations in tea plantations, including tea marketing.

Asked to comment, Mr Bista said: “Plantations do not only mean tea gardens. Considering representations from the tea, coffee, rubber, palm, spices and other industries, the Union government permitted plantations to function at a maximum 50 percent capacity.

However, the onus of enforcing rules and strictly adhering to social distancing norms are with the state government. Given the absolute failure of administration in maintaining lockdown, today, I am not just worried about the tea garden workers, I am worried about the entire North Bengal turning into a potential Covid-19 hotspot.”

“The administration that cannot maintain social distancing in front of the chief minister, can we imagine them to maintain social distancing in the tea gardens?” he added.